Robots take over the rock face

It sounds like science fiction, but as Juliet Samuel reports, autonomy is advancing in a land of giant machines

On a red, dusty plain, vast machines are digging, crushing and loading immense batches of red rocks and then trundling off into the barren landscape on an autonomous mission of their own.

No, this is not a scene from Mars, but business as usual in the Pilbara, one of Australia’s richest mining regions, where rivals Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, two of the world’s biggest iron ore producers, are competing to shift as much of the metal as possible on to their vast ships in as short a time as possible. Rio currently claims that its Western Australian operations are the biggest deployment of “autonomy” – pre-programmed machinery – in the modern world.

The 150 driverless trucks, which haul around 230 tonnes of materials each, are tracked 1,000 miles away in Perth from a vast supercomputer. Building and programming them is not cheap, but it saves on the more than $100,000 salary that truck drivers can now command in the region.

“This is about allowing us to expand in the face of labour shortages,” says John McGagh, Rio’s head of innovation. The auto-trucks are also safer and more fuel-efficient because they never over-accelerate or break too sharply. A driverless train to transport rocks over 500 kilometres of track will follow.

On the east coast, Rio’s underground mines are populated by robots, which can dig up to 12 metres of tunnel a day, versus the usual four metres achieved by drilling and blasting. Instead of truck drivers, Rio is now recruiting skilled supervisors to run its equipment. “I wouldn’t quite say it’s the Xbox generation, but it’s not far from it,” says Mr McGagh.

Recovering minerals from the ore also requires more advanced technology. Copper grades, for example, have nosedived from 17 per cent in the 1700s to less than 1 per cent today. Rio has funded research into ways of cracking open the rock using microwaves and chemicals. So while we are unlikely to run out of most resources, the kit needed to extract them only gets more expensive.